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Any remix artists worth their salt know that a lot more is involvedin producing a remix than just comping together a few rhythm tracks anddropping in a vocal. A good remix requires not only a trainedunderstanding of the intended audience but also a clear idea of auralspace and composition. Mood, vibe and intensity mean nothing if a remixis lacking in those basic areas.
So what do you need to know before you send your latest batch oftracks back to the label? In part 1 of this series ("RemixingRoundtable," August 2002), remixing pros discussed–in additionto the gear they depend on for remixing–using parts from theoriginal song in a remix, the importance of highlighting the originalvocals, changing a vocal track’s tempo without degrading its soundquality and programming beats versus sampling drum loops. In thisarticle, Angel Alanis, Dave Audé, Kris Bones and Pablo La Rosa areback to cover creating remix song structure, using compression andeffects, nailing your mix, being original and getting into the remixingbusiness.
STRUCTURE TIME AGAIN
Traditional songwriting is big on structure: verse, chorus,bridge and so on. Do you follow similar structures withremixes?
Kris Bones: Think about it as if you were the DJ. Have arun-in time, a break down and a runoff time. Normally, on the run-in,try to give people something they’ll recognize straight off: aheavy kick with light rhythmic parts and a little bit of bass. For therunoff, try to bring it back down to just the raw beats but keep themhard so that there is enough for the DJ to work with. If your track hasa two-step kind of feel to it, like the snare is hitting off-time,bring back a 4/4 snare towards the end to avoid the possibility ofclashing with an off snare coming in from the next track.
The last thing you want is a really noisy ending that nobody can putanother tune over. People only know to go on the 1, so if you havethree snares going, all it takes is a little bit of a bungle, and allfucking hell breaks loose. Somewhere in your tune, you need to breakdown to something really simple; if it’s not at the end, make itin the middle–just give the DJ somewhere they can get out of thesong.
Pablo La Rosa: You definitely need to think about who will bebuying and listening to your remix. Consumers might pick it up, but,ultimately, you are trying to please the DJ, so you have to think aboutwhat they need when they are mixing. I always start with drums in thebeginning and very little low end, like no bass line and nothing toocomplicated musically, pretty stripped-down. The same thing goes forthe end of the song. Other than that, the entire middle is pretty muchup to you.
My intro structure tends to be drums at the beginning, usually about32 bars, starting off with things like hats and percussion loops andthen bringing the kick in for the second 16 bars, or maybe the oppositeorder. Next, I try to bring in a bass line because drums and bass arethe most important foundation of a track; then, I like to tease peoplewith the vocal, maybe just a word or a phrase with some kind of filtereffect. Finally, you break it down and start to bring in all the vocalparts. And I think there should always be a B section. Don’t justkeep doing the same thing over and over. You should have a definite Bsection where you bring in some new element, and the track takes on awhole new character. For example, if you’re going to make aneight- or 10-minute remix, it should have something different happen atthe end. That will keep it from getting boring and entice the DJ toplay the whole track.
In terms of creating intensity on the dancefloor, I think that abreakdown is always warranted. However, I think that we’re allpretty much over the snare-roll thing. To build up the kind of energynecessary to transition smoothly out of the breakdown, try usingeffects instead. If you have a sound that was repeating with, say, atape delay, crank up the effects-send level and feedback until itstarts building on itself and really creates a lot of anticipation.Then, right at its apex–boom–drop everything back in. Thereare new ways now to create that kind of intensity without going back tothe tired old snare roll. Even silence, dropping everything for a beator two, can also work to create tension and anticipation.
Dave Audé: I don’t really have any set structureother than that there must be some time at the beginning and the end ofthe track to mix in and out. Also, I suggest that you should not leavethe kick drum out of the beginning of the song–I think that’sjust lame. If you actually DJ, then you know that it helps to hear thekick and that nobody is ever going to hear the entire intro anyway.
Angel Alanis: Definitely, I go for the DJ-friendly approach,an intro of around 64 bars or maybe even longer depending on the typeof remix I’m doing. Sometimes, though, I may only do 32 bars andthen just break down to silence. It depends on if you want to createdrama or simply settle into the track’s groove for a while. Idon’t think outros are that important. Not to put anybody down,but if you’re a good DJ, you shouldn’t need a break to mixout of.
Which effects or effect units do you use regularly?
Bones: Just the effects on the Pioneer [DJM-600] mixer. HouseDJs, those boys can get all heavy into the effects because their beatsare pretty straight. If you’re doing breaks or anything like that,the most you can usually do is throw on a little reverb, echo orflange. Anything more, and you’re going to cause chaos.
Audé: I use them all. You should try out new things,experiment. I’m all about technology, but, really, the mostimportant thing to remember is to try to not use an effect oneverything.
When I do use an effect, it has to sound really good; otherwise,your whole track just ends up sounding like Niagara Falls.
Alanis: Emagic’s Logic Audio comes with several veryuseful effects plug-ins. Plug-ins I use a lot include: Tape Delay,AutoFilter, Flanger, Mulitpressor, Tremolo and PlatinumVerb. You canalso buy your own VST effect plug-ins. And hardware effects units aregood, too, like the DP/4 Plus by Ensoniq and the FireworX by TCElectronic.
La Rosa: Something important to mention concerning effectsand vocals is that when people think about vocals, they thinkthey’re going to need a really good reverb. But, honestly, I neveruse reverb on vocals; I use a delay. Delay just seems to make thevocals smooth out and carry more without making thingsmuddy–assuming you have your delays matched to the tempo of yourremix, which is easy to do with today’s plug-ins that can lock toyour digital audio sequencer’s master tempo. Delay just adds morepresence. I am a big fan of Logic’s Tape Delay. I use the hell outof that on vocals, instruments and drums.
OUR FRIEND COMPRESSION
How important is compression when you’re remixing?
Alanis: Compression can be tricky. It can either help yourmix or totally ruin it. You have to be careful not to compress yourfinal stereo mix too much, or it will sound muddy, and you will end upwith a terrible recording on vinyl. I highly recommend buying a moreexpensive stereo tube compressor [such as the Avalon VT-737SP] to useon your master stereo output. You can also compress individual tracksfor dynamics control or to create an effect, like to warm and tightenup a sound. Compressing snares, bass drums and percussion is typicallya good idea. The Presonus ACP88 is an 8-channel rackmount compressorthat works great, or you can always use the plug-in compressors thatcome standard with all the good digital audio sequencers.
La Rosa: The kick, in particular, you really want to compressthe hell out of. I go so far as an 8-to-1 compression ratio, andI’ll crank the attack up to make it really crack so that it cutsthrough the mix. I used to think that using such an extreme compressionratio was wrong, but forget engineering rules and just do what soundsgood.
Audé: Don’t use compression on everything, justwhen you want "that sound." Drums are usually the most popularcandidates for compression. Try compressing all of your drums, exceptthe kick, as a stereo group for a really big sound. I prefer tocompress the kick separately because that’s one of the mostimportant elements in a remix.
Bones: Compression is good, but be careful not to hit it toohard, or things will start sounding flat and lifeless. I generally letmy engineer handle all of the final compression settings during themixdown.
CHECK THE MIX
What tricks ensure that your final remix is totally pumping, thatthe mix produced in your studio sounds the best it can before it goesto the record label?
La Rosa: Whenever I finish a mix, I burn a CD. I thinkit’s really important to sit on your mix for a while, play itaround and see how it sounds; check it out in the car. I even go so faras to mix it in with records on my turntables to see how it would fitin a DJ set. This way, I can look at it not onlyarrangementwise–like, "Was that drum intro long enough?" and "Wasthe outro easy to work with?"–but also sonically to hear how themix sounds when it is put up against records that are being released. Alot of times, you might notice, for example, that all of your highs aregone compared to the other records. Then, you know that your mix soundsdull, and you can get back in the studio and re-EQ things. Your earscan really play tricks on you, especially if you’ve been listeningto the same mix for a long time. It’s important to give your earsa break.
Since I mix everything in the computer, I often run a masteringplug-in right on my 24-track session without first bouncing it to2-track. If later I notice that the mix isn’t loud enough, I willgo back and run it through a loudness maximizer. Previously, I usedSteinberg’s Mastering Edition, but, recently, I purchased TCElectronic’s PowerCore bundle, and I use that all of the time now.It has the MasterX 3-band plug-in, which is incredible.
In the old days, it was always, "Just record the parts, andwe’ll fix anything that needs fixing in the mix." Everybody hadthe attitude, "We’ll make it sound good when we’re mixingeverything down." But that’s not the way to work anymore. Today,the way to work is to make everything sound good as you are writing themusic. Sort out the effects that you’re going to use; make surethat every sound gels; mix your track as you’re working out thearrangement–if a sound isn’t working, find another one thatdoes.
The labels are expecting everything to sound pro; they’reexpecting a remixer to turn out stuff that is as good sonically astracks being released commercially, like tracks that where mixed on abig budget by people such as Bob Clearmountain. So you have to startthinking about the mix from this angle in the very beginning, puttingeffects on immediately and making sure that all the sounds are workingwell together. Certain sounds might sound great on their own, but whenyou put them together, everything gets muddy. You need to start hearingand listening to stuff like this really early on. And you usually onlyhave two weeks to get everything done.
Audé: Make sure you listen to the mix where you know thespeakers–but setting up big speakers in your garage is notnecessarily a good idea. A/B your mix against a lot of other tracksthat you know sound good in a club. That is, go to a club, listen tothe music, ask the DJ what song it is and go buy it. Don’t buy theCD version; buy the actual 12-inch version the DJ played. Stay awayfrom MP3s; they don’t give you a complete sonic picture
Bones: You definitely need to listen to your remix ondifferent systems: in the car, at different clubs. Get your friends whoDJ at different clubs to give it a spin and give you feedback. Everyonehas their own opinions, but there will usually be some outstandingcomment, like it has too much high end or it needs more bottom.
Alanis: I try to get the best-quality recording that I can athome; good monitors and a well-soundproofed studio can help you makebetter mixes. After I’m done mixing down, I usually burn a CD so Ican play the track everywhere. I will listen to it in the car, on mymum’s stereo and even over a TV. If it sounds good everywhere,then I probably have a decent mix. Then, I usually send the master to agood mastering house, like the Exchange in London, or if you’re ona tight budget, try Tru Tone in New York City–they do a good jobalso.
GROOVE TO YOUR OWN BEAT
Where do you get ideas for a remix? Do they come from listeningto the original song, do you keep an ear open to the sounds of othercurrently charting dance tracks, or do you just throw caution to thewind and go for it?
Alanis: It depends on what the label or artist wants. I justtake it from there and try to keep everything as fresh, as original andas DJ-friendly as possible.
La Rosa: In general, I’m always trying to make my ownmusic. There are a lot of remixers that will just reassemble theoriginal parts and add some effects, rearrange it, whatever. So thetrack still sounds like the original song, just a little bit morepumped up. But I don’t do that. I want to do my own music, createmy own take on the song. I really try not to pay too much attention tothe original song because I don’t want to get influenced by it. Idon’t want to be influenced by its chord changes or even the waythe verses are laid out. I might listen to the original one time, justto catch the song’s key, but I’m always paying more attentionto the vocals than anything else. It’s important to remember that,like it or not, the more you listen to something, the more you getinfluenced by it. In my opinion, a remixer should try somethingdifferent from the original, a new interpretation.
Audé: I’ve been DJing for 10 years now and aminvolved with some of the biggest DJs in the world. Basically,I’ve got my ear pretty close to the ground when it comes to clubstuff. I know what’s working on the dancefloors right now. This isone of the major reasons I get hired over the other guys who sit intheir studios on the weekend and never get out.
Bones: For the longest time, I was always obsessing over anytype of break in a tune. It didn’t matter what it was. I rememberthat there was this whole frenzy about a Disney Mickey Mouse tune thatstarts off with the heaviest break. I and other DJs would get intofrenzies looking for a particular break. If somebody used a sample, youjust had to find it. I’ve got whole collections of crap albumswith just a little, tiny one-bar break in each album, but you sleptbetter at night knowing you had it. Some of these breaks I’venever even used. When the breaks-and-beats collections on vinyl cameout, it made life so much easier.
Then, there are guys like Jazzy B., who would use the same drumpattern every single time, to the point of being ridiculous. He musthave used that drum pattern about 60 times and got away with it. So, Ithink you need to find a formula that works for you, stick to it andthen just improve on it.
Do you have any final tips on getting into the remixbusiness?
Audé: Working "on spec" sucks, but you have to do someof it to get a name for yourself. Just remember, it’s really hardto get money out of someone after you’ve done a job for free, sopick your free projects wisely.
La Rosa: Getting into the remix business is more difficultnow than ever. To get your foot in the door, you’re going to haveto be willing to do a few mixes on spec. But the best advice I can giveis to focus on creating your own tracks. If you can get some originaltracks signed and they create a buzz, record companies will be callingyou for remixes. In terms of the gear it takes to get started, I wouldsuggest a really strong digital audio sequencer, like Logic Audio, anda fast computer. Start from there and add more gear as you go.Definitely get a virtual analog synth and a workhorse module like the[Roland] XV-5080. Between those synths and your software, thereisn’t much you can’t do.
Alanis: I recommend remixing other people’s productionsand a cappella tracks when you can get them and then sending them whatyou create. Don’t be afraid to go all out. If the producers andthe label like it, they’ll probably take it and run with it. Anddon’t be a label whore. Try to get your name out by making lots ofmusic, but do your releases with fewer labels–preferably, the samelabels that you like listening to.
Bones: Where [Genaside II] really started out was DJing andremixing records live and as bootleggers. We would cut beats and acappellas together and put them to vinyl. So, really, a big tip forgetting into remixing is to be as illegal as possible. Just start bydoing everything, take whatever you can get, make it hard and do itbootleg–but cover your ass. Chances are, if you put a bootleg outand it does well, a record label will buy it off you, so be ready forthis. If it doesn’t do well, no one’s going to give a fuck,so it doesn’t matter.